x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

A festive spirit for Bayern Munich

The runaway leaders have moved 11 points clear and their rivals are all stumbling in the struggle to keep up, writes Ian Hawkey.

Bayern Munich have had plenty to smile about as they have been racking up the points.
Bayern Munich have had plenty to smile about as they have been racking up the points.

Bayern Munich's players and staff began their mid-season holiday last night, content to go into the five-week Bundesliga break knowing they could probably afford to return to league duty as late as the end of January and still be lording it above everybody else in the German top flight.

No club has ever accelerated so quickly to the status of mid-term leaders of the Bundesliga. Bayern would need to drop at least 10 points very rapidly to cast doubt on their title credentials.

Bayern knew three fixtures ago they were guaranteed top berth at the halfway stage, crowned so-called winter champions in late November. Or not so much winter champions as phantoms who disappeared over the horizon before Christmas shopping had begun.

Will anybody challenge Bayern between now and May? The chances of Borussia Dortmund, the German champions the past two years, doing so hit another setback with defeat at home to Wolfsburg last weekend, which left them fuming about refereeing decisions and in third place.

Dortmund's impressive campaign in the Champions League, where they topped a group including Real Madrid, Ajax and Manchester City, also deprives them of an alibi in the spring. They will have more high-pressure football sapping their resources.

Dortmund are currently at the head of a bottleneck of six teams within three points of one another.

They include Schalke, who headed into November second in the table but have collapsed.

Among those grateful for Schalke's slide are Eintracht Frankfurt, who made a surprisingly smart start to their return after promotion in 2011/12 to the Bundesliga's top tier and whose recent, erratic form has not seen them plunge down the table as it might have done simply because the likes of Schalke, Dortmund and others have also been stumbling.

All of which poses a mildly uncomfortable question for the Bundesliga. How strong really are its top tier of clubs? It is the third-strongest league in Europe, according the Uefa co-efficient, the means by which European football's governing body measures the merit of a country's domestic football.

Two years ago, the Bundesliga jumped ahead of Italy's Serie A in that index, meaning it now sends four clubs - up from three - into the Champions League each August.

That led to hearty self-congratulations from a German football set-up not shy of proclaiming its sound business principles, its focus on sophisticated youth development, its high attendances and open dialogue with supporters who are far more involved in the running of most clubs than in comparable leagues across Europe.

That fan-friendly image of the Bundesliga has suffered somewhat, though, as the German football federation, under political pressure, introduced tighter security regulations around fixtures.

Football-related violence has been on the rise. Protests against the proposed security measures have been vivid but largely peaceful, and banners and demonstrations against what supporter-bodies perceive as unnecessary restrictions on, for instance, the allocation of tickets to away fans are expected at stadiums this weekend.

The idea of a Bundesliga with great strength in depth has been a little dented, too.

Borussia Monchengladbach, beneficiaries of Germany's new four-team allocation in Europe's principal club competition, were promptly eliminated by Dynamo Kiev in the play-off for this year's group stage.

Dortmund's 2011/12 campaign had been unedifying, too. They finished bottom of their group.

Only one club other than Bayern has reached a Champions League final this millennium and it is they, Bayer Leverkusen, who lead the chasing pack, albeit at a distance, this morning.

Leverkusen, spearheaded by the exciting Andre Shurrle, a 22-year-old embodiment of what Germany has done right in its youth development, and the Germany international striker Stefan Kiessling, whose 10 league goals so far this term put him joint-top of the Bundesliga marksmen's list going into the weekend, were on a run of four successive wins until they were afflicted by the virus apparently preying on all clubs aiming for a place in the top four of the Bundesliga. Hannover beat them 3-2 last Sunday.

Leverkusen entertain Hamburg today. If there is a club with the might and resources to lever itself up through the flawed also-rans of the current Bundesliga, it should be Hamburg. But they have been not so much a sleeping giant in recent seasons as one kept neurotically awake at night by dreams and emotional instability. They finished one spot above the relegation zone last May, but have made a far happier impression on the present campaign. Buoyed by the return from Tottenham Hotspur of the Dutch playmaker Rafael van der Vaart - though he will miss today's fixture with injury - and with a greater steel to a defence thriving on the impressive performances of the former Leverkusen goalkeeper Rene Adler, Hamburg are on the up.

"We have a chance of qualifying for Europe," is as far as their coach, Thorsten Fink, is prepared to forecast. But in a Bundesliga where the champions-elect had declared themselves by mid-November, and the next-best all keep tripping up, you will not hear any coach predicting much more than that.







Fuerth v Augsburg 6.30pm

Wolfsburg v Frankfurt 6.30pm

Leverkusen v Hamburg 6.30pm

Dusseldorf v Hannover 6.30pm

Mainz v Stuttgart 6.30pm

Schalke v Freiburg 9.30pm


Hoffenheim v Dortmund 6.30pm

Bremen v Nuremberg 8.30pm